I know it’s been several weeks since Oprah Winfrey told a BBC interviewer in London that President Obama has been a victim of racism. And yes, I know that by now it’s old news. So in the spirit of the holiday season I’ll not only be brief, but polite, civil and kind too.
Ms. Winfrey was asked if President Obama would be treated differently if he were not African American. This is what she said: “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs. And that occurs in some cases and maybe even in many cases because he’s African American. There’s no question about that, and it’s the kind of thing that nobody ever says but everybody is thinking it.”
Oprah is right that some of the criticism of President Obama is coming from bigots. In a nation of more than 300 million people, there will always some stupid people who can’t get beyond skin color. But it’s a mistake to make generalizations based on a small number of racists.
To bolster her case, Oprah told the BBC interviewer about Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican, who yelled “you lie” during a speech that Mr. Obama delivered to a joint session of Congress in 2009. That kind of disrespect, coming from a white Southerner, in the United States Congress no less, makes African Americans like Oprah Winfrey wonder why the only president in the entire history of this country ever subjected to that kind of nastiness, was a black man. If you were black you might wonder the same thing. But I don’t think Joe Wilson yelled “liar” because Mr. Obama is black. I think he did it because Joe Wilson is a fool.
But let’s move on to the main point Oprah was making: that some or much of what she sees as disrespect – but aside from Wilson’s remark is probably just run-of-the mill political criticism — is the result of racism. Is she on to something?
To find out, let’s imagine that another young, attractive African American with an Ivy League education is president of the United States. Let’s call him President Buckley — and let’s note that he’s very conservative. Let’s say President Buckley used his considerable charisma to rail against the prevalence of food stamps in our culture. Let’s say he wanted lower taxes on corporations and thought the government was spending too much money on too many programs that didn’t work. Who would be criticizing this black president?
If Oprah is right, that too many Americans (conservative Americans is what she meant) don’t like a black man in the White House, then it would be people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who would be yelling the loudest about President Buckley. But they’d be the ones cheering the loudest. They wouldn’t care one bit about the color of President Buckley’s skin. They’d be thrilled that they finally had a conservative in the White House. someone who in the ways that count, resembled Ronald Reagan.
So then, who would be leading the opposition to President Buckley? Who would be the ones who before he ever got there refused to vote for this kind of black man? White liberals, that’s who. People like Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow. People who write editorials at the New York Times.
Are they bigots? Do they hate black people? No? Then why are they heaping so much criticism on the poor guy? Could it be – duh! – that they would oppose President Buckley because of his conservative politics?
This is so simple I’m a little embarrassed devoting a column, even a short one, making these obvious points — except they’re not obvious to a lot of liberals.
Because I opened this piece saying I’d be polite, civil and kind, I won’t say that white liberals just aren’t that smart when it comes to matters involving race. I won’t say that they’re too busy trying show off their good racial manners, which is to say trying to convince black people that they, unlike most white people, aren’t bigots. And I won’t say, either, that black liberals, perhaps because of slavery and segregation, have become paranoid on matters of race, seeing racism even where it doesn’t exist.
I won’t say any of that — even if it’s true.